SouveNEAR offers travelers a piece of KC — from KC, said co-founder Tiffany King.
The Kansas City-based startup, which repurposes vending machines to sell locally made souvenirs, is in its fourth year of steady, organic growth, King said. As a member of ScaleUP! KC new class, SouveNEAR is preparing to grow the business and turn itself into a national brand, she said.
Co-founded in November 2014 by King and Suzanne Southard with just one machine at Kansas City International Airport, the startup now has now grown to 12 machines — eight at KCI and four at Oakland International Airport in California. The SouveNEAR team also is working to set up a machine at an undisclosed airport on the East Coast, King said.
SouveNEAR repurposed standard snack machines to sell merchandise purchased wholesale from local makers. Souvenirs include a range of jewelry, chocolates, hot sauces, woodblock prints, small artwork pieces — including works by well-known Kansas City muralist Sike — and even T-shirts that are designed and printed locally, King said.
“[The vending machine technology has] been a buying consideration for us when we’re choosing merchandise,” she said. “We need things that can drop so it works just like a snack machine.”
The idea behind SouveNEAR — which King credited to Southard — is a guarantee that the souvenirs customers purchase are actually made in the city they just visited. For example, every item in the SouveNEAR machines at the Oakland airport are made in the bay area, she said.
“We both had that experience of being travelers and trying to grab something at the last minute and we couldn’t find anything other than, you know, something stamped with the name of the place, and we both had a real interest in giving back to communities and the difference it could make,” King said. “It seemed unfortunate that so many souvenirs … don’t really translate back into a benefit to the city in terms of the maker.”
The vending machine concept was just an afterthought, King added. By placing vending machines in high-traffic locations, she and Southard were able to get into operation with limited resources.
“I know more about vending machines than I ever imagined,” she said. “I can take one apart, and it’s wonderful.”
SouveNEAR previously maintained one of its vending machines in Kansas City’s Union Station, but the company — which also sells locally made products through its online store — recently moved the machine to KCI airport.
After gaining media attention from such publications as Thinking Bigger Business Media, the Kansas City Business Journal and USA Today, a California-based entrepreneur reached out to Southard and King to see if she could somehow partner with them.
Today, Betsy Wolf manages the four SouveNEAR machines at the Oakland airport.
The SouveNEAR team is ready to scale up and realize its vision of making SouveNEAR a national brand by planting vending machines in cities across the country, King said. Until now, the team has self-funded the operation, which is why SouveNEAR joined the ScaleUP! Class this winter, King said.
“We can continue to grow slowly if we’re just using organic growth, but it will definitely limit how quickly we can get that national presence,” she said. “So we’re at the point where we’re really ready to look at investment options and figure out that next step for launching more nationally. We’re at a point where I feel like we’ve been able to demonstrate that our concept resonates and that we have buyers and that it’s doable.”
SouveNEAR is a “great opportunity for makers” who might only sell their products in boutiques or at small maker fairs, King said.
“Getting into the SouveNEAR machine puts them in front of millions of travelers,” she said.
Vann Benson, who sells headbands with hand-sewn poppies stitched on them through the SouveNEAR vending machines, said the added visibility to her product has garnered brand recognition across Kansas City, especially at craft fairs.
“A lot of people will come by and point out that they’ve seen me at the airport,” Benson said. “I’ve also heard from repeat customers who have told me they purchased a headband for someone on their way out of town and when they came home, they looked up my Etsy shop.”
Benson finds the SouveNEAR machines to be helpful because her product is very specific, she said.
“I think a lot of the items they have in their machines are that way; they’re so unique and specific,” she said. “There’s that recognition when you see other people wearing them or you see them at a craft fair.”
Some makers, like Todd and Janet Zimmer, owners of zim’s Sauces, call it “free marketing.”
“For us — and probably for a lot of the people that work with SouveNEAR, I would guess — the whole thing is kind of cool in that we’re actually getting paid for marketing, which is really pretty cool,” Todd Zimmer said, adding that the vending machines reflect authentic Kansas Citians and their products. “It’s showing Kansas city in a really great light.”
Zimmer said his family’s goal was to recoup investment in SouveNEAR within the year. It’s “beyond” what they were expecting, he said.
“I think it’s looking more like a six-month return on investment, and that’s exceeded our expectations,” Zimmer said.
Participating in SouveNEAR has smoothed out the buying/selling process for some makers, King said.
“In craft fairs, there are certain seasons to the year,” King said. “And there are certainly travel seasons, but we are open 24/7 every day of the year. So I think for some of our makers, we’ve become kind of a consistent source of income.”
Souvenir shops at airports are technically SouveNEAR’s main competitors, King said, but the merchandise truly sets the businesses apart.
“I would say our value proposition is that you can buy a last-minute item from us, and it does not look last minute,” she said. “It has backstory, and it’s thoughtful, and it supports the community that you’ve just visited. And so I think that our purchases are, are the ‘feel good’ option.”